Testimonial of an ink-stained scribbler at the digital crossroads, part 1: How canny techies are making me publish my book the way they spawn their software and devices

- photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

– photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

[ A new experiment in publishing: this entry can also be read on Medium.com, in a different form ]

Two weeks ago, I did something I would once have considered shameful, if not humiliating.

I published a book that could be mistaken, from the look of its opening pages, for something spat out and trampled on by a frothing Chihuahua.

I must explain that this book was researched under pressure, with criss-crossing train journeys in Switzerland in a hard winter. It was edited and checked for accuracy as obsessively as any text destined for ungentle scrutiny by an old print publisher, even though — for reasons I will explain later — I was launching an e-only version for an opener.

What I saw when I clicked on my book’s ‘Look Inside’ invitation, in its Amazon’s Kindle shop window, was a formatting disaster. The text was no longer paginated. The names of my dedicatees, honoured with their own page, were swimming into the table of contents, which was on the verge of a messy entanglement with the preface. Close to a week of wrestling with incompatible software, meticulously following formatting instructions, and here was my reward.

I downloaded the book onto my tablet. More formatting gone awry. The text that was my engine — the point of any book — was propelling a car with prima donna headlights blinking off or on when they felt like it. The simple, uncomplicated map of Switzerland I had laboured over converting from its original form was not squarely at the centre of its page, where I thought I’d put it, but mysteriously shrunken and stuck to the left margin, like a cringing apology.

Yes, Amazon will always be thanked from the bottom of my heart for boldly deploying new technologies to give us all a miracle — some means of letting trained and untrained writers publish without intermediaries. I am with all those who see this as an essential, soaring vault in cultural progress (a point I recently made on post-Gutenberg.com with indirect help from three highly accomplished writers, Carl Djerassi, Theo Padnos and Edward Lucas.)

But, oh dear! … What no one who hasn’t personally tried doing this knows is that the process can be as simple, and the results as reliable, as blogging with WordPress — as I have done for a few years. But it can also — commonly — be a perfectionist’s sweaty, sheet-drenching nightmare. Amazon’s indie publishers’ discussion forum gets a steady pounding from complaints and frantic pleas for help. Too many of these agonising visitors, on a typical day, are having trouble converting their manuscripts from Microsoft Word — the word processing programme that Amazon’s Kindle itself recommends as ideal for its site — into the Amazon software that assembles e-books. (Dear Amazon and Microsoft: both your nerve centres are in Seattle: surely you can do something to end the agony?)

It was from a conversation there that I discovered that the online ‘preview’ option — which is supposed to let you see how the book you are about to publish will appear to its audience — does not work as advertised. If it did, you would indeed be treated to knowing how your book will look on all Apple devices, including the iPhone, and Amazon’s own family of Kindle e-readers and tables.

Unfortunately, in famous techie shorthand, Amazon’s online ‘preview’ is not WYSIWYG — What You See is What You Get. It is WYSIWYM(ost certainly don’t get, but something else, depending on the software’s whim-of-the-day). Nothing on the book’s editing dashboard explains that this is why Kindle also lets you download an offline ‘preview’ tool, different software altogether that actually delivers on its promise.

After I clicked on ‘publish,’ the book that had looked perfect in the stripped-down, minimalist style of most e-books, was — in the description of one disappointed indie author after another — ‘a mess’.

What effect has this had on me? Mainly, it has led to a realisation I find mildly shocking — that if you use enough of the new tools for e-publishing, you gradually submit to a cultural reconditioning by — well, I may as well be frank: the aliens have got you. You begin to do your work the way techies do theirs.

For an explanation of what this entails — and why I find myself grumblingly going along with it — I have to thank the 2 December post on Medium.com by Esen Yogurtcu. All I know about him is that his arresting Turkish name goes with a description of himself as ‘entrepreneur, strategist and Zen enthusiast’ — yet he is already someone I’m unlikely to forget.

His contribution to my re-education by digital natives was a correction of conventional Silicon Valley wisdom: that the key to successful innovation is now, apparently, called the minimum viable product.

This is not quite like a car you think thrilling until its wheels fly off around the first corner, on your inaugural drive together — or the Apple core-software update that means that although your photographs acquire an even eerier laser-like precision, after you install it, you can no longer scroll through your iPad albums. The Wikipedia supplied the essential tutorial: an entrepreneur unleashing a new product rakes in the biggest profit by spending only as much as is absolutely necessary on design and testing, and lets the customers who most love trying out novelties — ‘able to grasp a product vision from an early prototype or marketing information’ — assist in making it work properly. Or, presumably, damn it to eternal obscurity with their reviews.

The Yogurtcu perspective is that minimum viable is not ambitious enough by half:

Focusing only on a viable product is like sending a robot to the Mars but not thinking about the atmospheric conditions. For a product to be successful … [it] … has to be viral.

I read that as meaning, spread the pain of undercooked, glitchy, infuriating products as far and as fast as possible — hoping that they offer enough attractions and benefits for compensation. The optimism might just prove justified.

So there you are. Ignorant as I am about the stratagems of marketing-Einsteins, because Amazon’s ‘preview’ offering is a fine example of a minimum viable product, I must repeat silently: ‘When in toolmakers’ Rome, …’ etc..

I must shut out the outraged little voice inside my head complaining that this is a cruel penance after my trouble over getting my manuscript right.

My conclusion, after a dozen-odd email exchanges with Amazon’s technical support staff, is that if I want the book to look the way it does in the Kindle preview, I will have to un-format my 30,000 words and start re-formatting them from scratch — the work of a long weekend—or pay someone else to do the job. There will be no map of Switzerland’s principal cities until then. Meanwhile, just like the patched-together, unripe software we have all been buying for years and patiently downloading new versions of repeatedly — until it lives up to its buzz — buyers of my e-book will receive refined and corrected versions of its layout and look-and-feel in forthcoming releases of it.

As if things weren’t confusing enough already, I must say this: even before I ran into my Amazon Kindle headaches, my book was designed to be published in parts — as a serial — like the newspaper serialisations of the novels of Charles Dickens and other eminent Victorians. Think of what he missed by being born 200 years too soon: Great Expectations, Book I, 1.1.2 … 1.1.3 … and so on, into digital nirvana.

But Dickens is the greatest novelist that ever lived. Why should my readers buy a book in serial form and pay homage to the Silicon Valley creed: launch fast and iterate?

Why did I choose serialisation at all?

I will do my best to explain in additions to this diary of a scribe crossing over from the print ‘mindset,’ as the tech-wizards say. The best short answer is the usual techie justification: for the chance to get something useful that either did not exist before, or was hard to come by. That, anyway, is my hope.

Published here and on Medium.com on 12 December 2014 by Cheryll Barron (CheryllBarronT)

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